Why Democrats and Republicans can't agree on what bipartisanship means.

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Feb. 10 2010 5:35 PM

Two Is a Magic Number

Why Democrats and Republicans can't agree on what bipartisanship means. 

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

President Obama and the Republican leadership have both called for bipartisanship in passing health care reform and a jobs bill. But the first bipartisan decision Obama and GOP need to make is what, exactly, bipartisanship means.

Obama first floated the idea of a televised two-party summit during the Super Bowl pregame show, while millions of Americans were watching. "Let's just go through these bills—their ideas, our ideas—let's walk through them in a methodical way so that the American people can see and compare what makes the most sense," Obama told Katie Couric.

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Republicans said they'd be willing to meet with Obama—so long as he promised to scrap the current Senate and House legislation and start over. Otherwise, Republicans would be "reluctant to participate," according to a letter Minority Leader John Boehner and Minority Whip Eric Cantor wrote to Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed the need to "go step-by-step on a truly bipartisan basis to try to reach an agreement."

Obama rejected the request for a do-over. Bipartisanship doesn't mean "Democrats give up everything they believe in," he said. "Bipartisanship depends on a willingness among both Democrats and Republicans to put aside matters of party for the good of the country."

Obama and the Republicans aren't just talking past one another. They're not even speaking the same language. They're using the same word—bipartisanship—but they mean two different things. And neither version is especially productive.

The main difference between them is the amount of minority participation necessary to call a process "bipartisan." For Obama, bipartisanship means good-faith outreach to the other party, a genuine consideration of their ideas, and incorporation of those ideas that both parties agree on. But the starting point is what Democrats want. Republicans' definition of bipartisanship is starting at zero and building from there. In other words, the two parties begin on equal footing.

In Republicans' defense, Obama has been gradually defining bipartisanship down. It no longer means getting Republican votes on legislation. Merely incorporating Republican ideas into a bill is enough—even if Republicans didn't support the bill overall. The Senate health, education, labor, and pensions committee's passage of a health care bill that included "more than 160 amendments" was thus touted as a bipartisan accomplishment and a fulfillment of Obama's pledge to change the tone in Washington. In his "Question Time" session with the GOP leadership in Baltimore, Obama seemed to define bipartisanship further down: His mere presence among them—listening and debating—has been cited as a kind of bipartisanship.

On Tuesday Robert Gibbs suggested that the health care bill is already bipartisan, since it includes many Republican ideas. This won't amuse Republicans. If the White House already considers the bill bipartisan—whereas Republicans say they detest the bill—how many more concessions is the GOP likely to get? Reports that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi plan to hammer out a compromise before the meeting even takes place provide the answer.

But Republicans have refused to take the hands Obama has extended. The bipartisan Gang of Six failed to yield Republican votes on health care reform. Olympia Snowe voted for the Senate finance committee's bill, only to vote against the final, largely more moderate version. Not one Republican voted for the stimulus package, despite its nearly $300 billion in tax cuts. Add GOP refusal to cast a single vote for the budget and you've got a picture not of principled opposition but of knee-jerk opposition. As Rachel Maddow put it in this almost painful-to-watch segment, Republicans have repeatedly rejected ideas with which they agree simply because they're offered by Democrats. (Even if the two parties did meet face to face in an honest way, it's unclear that a "compromise" version of health care reform is even possible. And prospects for a bipartisan jobs bill don't look much better.)

Meanwhile, the notion that bipartisanship means starting from scratch on equal footing has little precedent. "Elections have consequences," members of Congress like to say—often in celebration, but just as often as a humble acknowledgement that they no longer have sway. The Republican definition of bipartisanship, at the moment, seems to suggest that elections do not have consequences—or, more charitably, that a special Senate election in Massachusetts is more consequential than 59 other Senate elections, 236 House elections, and a presidential election combined. No matter who is in power, both parties have equal ability to forge legislation.

The result is deadlock. Both sides stonewall while hiding behind the supposed principle of bipartisanship. But in reality, they can't even agree on what they're talking about when they use the word.

Of course, there's a reason for this: The word is meaningless. Bipartisanship is an ideal that politicians pursue when it's convenient for them, not when it's politically risky. As the parties become increasingly polarized, it's rarely politically convenient. As a result, bipartisanship has become, well, more partisan. Politicians are less likely to claim they're bipartisan, but more likely to accuse the other guy of not being bipartisan. If Democrats and Republicans want to achieve bipartisanship, perhaps a first step would be to agree on a meaning. Sounds like a job for a bipartisan commission.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.